One episode was provided prior to broadcast.
There’s a significant flaw all throughout the pilot episode of Doubt, CBS’s next mainstream procedural from Tony Phelan and Joan Rater (the producers of Grey’s Anatomy), and it distracts from many of the genuinely appealing aspects of what would otherwise be a series on the same enthralling level as the Seattle hospital drama. Rather than show us the inner workings of its premise, Doubt forces us to sit through explanations of more interesting scenes we don’t get to see.
How did Sadie Ellis (played by series replacement Katherine Heigl) fall into this court case with Billy Brennan (Steven Pasquale), a gold-hearted paediatric surgeon accused of murdering his girlfriend decades ago? We don’t see how they meet or build-up to the eventual romantic tension the show insists is important, let alone authentic, by the time we’re introduced to these characters, and instead, we’re told what to feel about Sadie’s struggle to be an attorney in love with her client. It’s an interesting hook in search of a better 45 minutes to match it.
This flaw runs through the course of every single plot and subplot of the otherwise strong pilot, featuring a variety of dynamic and likeable coworkers at a boutique law firm. Heigl, oddly enough, is probably the least engaging out of all of them, though to be fair, she’s competing with the likes of Dulé Hill, Laverne Cox, Elliout Gould and Dreama Walker, an assembly of competent lawyers who are charming enough to get away with topical Hamilton references.
The chemistry between the B-characters is Doubt’s greatest strength, though it can come off as disarming at times, especially to see them so involved in the minutiae of each other’s lives. But if you can buy it, it might be absorbing to witness the head of the firm (Isaiah, played by Gould) ribbing Albert (Hill) for a mishap regarding his girlfriend’s dog. “I know everything,” he explains to the salient audience. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if a later episode featured Gould setting up a boarding house for these characters to live in together.
To its credit, Doubt is slick, visually polished, and a bit futuristic in parts with touch screen televisions used to review evidence in a way that’s more digestible for viewers. Small flourishes like this aren’t quite enough on their own to set Doubt apart, but they don’t hurt. What’s more impressive is the decision to lend so much of the show’s drive to other characters, who routinely outshine the awkward main plot involving Ellis and Brennan’s rushed and frankly uninteresting romance.
For example, there’s an entertaining match-up between experienced, even-handed Cameron (Laverne Cox) and Iowa-raised associate Tiffany (Dreama Walker), as they attempt to help a mentally ill man stay out of prison. These scenes are the closest Doubt gets to realizing any of its raw potential outside of the easy premise of a murder mystery that gets personal for the principals.
That’s not to say Hill is misused here as the lawyer keeping Ellis in check. He gets some excellent time devoted to their established friendship and navigating the typical lawyer-speak of these procedurals. Heigl herself is at her best when feeding off of Hill and Gould, ideally when the two lawyers recite some speech of Isaiah’s that’s spoken in parody: “We do God’s work,” they say eccentrically, citing how they “meet people in their darkest hours.”
Ellis is given much to do, of course, and Heigl handles the part well in her court scenes and when confronting some harder emotional beats involving her past. It’s really the romance here between her and Brennan that slides the show away from the good ideas it really wants to get to, like a 24-year-old murder mystery that features echoes of the gripping Serial podcast, in that investigators are working hard to use old, dust-dried evidence to make any case possible, all while the accused suffers from accusations at all sides.
But Doubt is missing a lot of the pieces that follow through on that promise of intrigue. It’s a courtroom drama that happens to be fine enough for viewers willing to follow the twists and turns of legal jargon that is remarked upon and divined by the writers, rather than delivered through investigative drama. This is evidenced by most of our time being spent with the characters as they pontificate, only for another character to arrive with the solution we didn’t get to be a part of along the way. There are even cuts between revelations and the work that earns said revelation, all so characters can go out of their way to tell rather than show…anything. The entertainment value will be a mixed bag, as a result, because those shortcuts can do some serious damage to character investment.
If Doubt finds a way to reach a more rewarding groove, it will be in its discovery of a self-aware tone it already employs at times. “What, did you watch a couple episodes of Law and Order and now you’re a lawyer?” Because this line is uttered by Hill of Psyche and West Wing fame in a no-nonsense scene, it works just as hilariously as I hope the writers intended. Unfortunately, these brief moments of potential are undercut by persistent on-the-nose storytelling. “I want there to be no doubt,” utters Brennan, who wishes for everyone to be convinced of his supposed innocence.
Sadly, Doubt has zero concern with genuine character moments and nuance, perpetually displaying the thoughts, feelings, and even previous actions that inform those thoughts and feelings instead of allowing the viewers to breath it in and think for themselves. Or even have an honest experience getting to know some of these characters. In other words, Doubt is developed primarily for viewers uninterested in caring about characters outside of their own preconceived expectations of them. Without a doubt, that needs to change as the series continues to find itself.
Doubt wants very badly to be the next cheer-inducing character drama with a quirky, energetic underscore, but it doesn’t do the work to get there.